African Philosophy

Philosophy refers to the understanding, attitude of mind, logic and perception behind the manner in which people think, act or speak in different situations of life.

Mbiti, 1969, p. 2

If theories are like century-old roots of trees, then philosophy is the ageless soil on which those roots are nourished, moistened and supported.

ASWNet, 2021

A philosophy contains a society’s deep thoughts and ways of looking at life. It shapes how people think about the family, community, society, environment and spirituality. It shapes how people think about reality, existence, reason, knowledge, religion, truth, race, values, mind, behaviour, justice and language. In the chain of knowledge, a philosophy sits above theories. Theories are derived from philosophy. A society usually has one philosophy. Basically, each continent has its one overarching philosophy.

Africa’s overarching philosophy is called ubuntu. Ubuntu belongs to all who inherited it, and it can not be attributed to one individual author, one community or one country.

ASWNet, 2021

What you need to know about African philosophy

  1. Basically, African philosophy belongs to the community, there are usually no individual philosophers. The individual philosophers have only expanded community ideas.
  2. Ubuntu philosophy is largely not written, it exist in different non-written formats.
  3. Some philosophers who have translated ubuntu philosophy to written literature, and these include:
    • John Samuel Mbiti (1931-2019) – Africanism (ubuntu) and the Philosophy of African Religion
    • Kenneth Buchizya Kaunda (1921-2021) – African Humanism (Ubuntu)
    • Lovemore Mbigi – Ubuntu management philosophy
  4. Colonialism resulted in African philosophy and philosophers being overridden by western philosophies.
  5. More often than not, African writers, lecturers, teachers, researchers, librarians, reviewers and students know western or eastern philosophies than their own philosophies. This is a legacy of colonialism.

Philosophy shapes how we think about social work, how we define social problems and the interventions that we put in place.

ASWNet, 2021

Whose fault is it if no one knows about the philosophy of your grandfather and mine? Is it not your fault and mine? We are the intellectuals of (Africa). It is our business to distill this philosophy and set it out for the world to see

Samkange, 1980

Kenneth Buchizya Kaunda was born in 1924 in Zambia. Together with his compatriots led a struggle against African colonisation, and later became Zambia’s as its founding president from 1962 to 1991, 27 years. He died in in 2021. His philosophy of ubuntu was writern in the 60s but summarised in 2007. Kaunda (2007)’s eight basic principles of African humanism or ubuntu are:

  • The human person at the centre, people centred – “…This MAN is not defined according to his color, nation, religion, creed, political leanings, material contribution or any matter…”
  • The dignity of the human person – “Humanism teaches us to be considerate to our fellow men in all we say and do…”
  • Non-exploitation – “Humanism abhors every form of exploitation of MAN by man.”
  • Equal opportunities for all, non-discrimination – “Humanism seeks to create an egalitarian society–that is, society in which there is equal opportunity for self-development for all…”
  • Hard work and self-reliance – “Humanism declares that a willingness to work hard is of prime importance without it nothing can be done anywhere…”
  • Working together – “The National productivity drive must involve a communal approach to all development programs. This calls for a community and team spirit…”
  • The extended family – “…under extended family system; no old person is thrown to the dogs or to the institutions like old people’s homes…”
  • Loyalty and patriotism – “…It is only in dedication and loyalty can unity subsist.”

Kaunda wrote “Zambian humanism came from our own appreciation and understanding of our society. Zambian humanism believes in God the Supreme Being. It believes that loving God with all our soul, all our heart, and with all our mind and strength, will make us appreciate the human being created in God’s image. If we love our neighbour as we love ourselves, we will not exploit them but work together with them for the common good (p. iv).” His two basic personal principles were relating with the creator, God and relating with neighbours or each other.


Kaunda, K. D. (2007). Zambian humanism, 40 years later. Sunday Post, October 28. 20-25.

Kaunda, K. (1974). Humanism in Zambia: A Guide to its implementation. Lusaka. p. 131.

Kaunda, K. D. (1973). The humanist outlook. Longman Group Ltd., UK. p. 139.

Kaunda, K. (1966) A Humanist in Africa. London: Longman Greens


Professor John Samuel Mbiti was not a social worker but a philosopher, theologian, and pan-Africanist. He was born in Kitui, Kenya. He studied English, sociology and geography at University College of Makerere in Kampala, Uganda in 1953. He lectured religion and theology at Makerere University from 1964 to 1974. His main philosophical ideas are contained in a seminal book published in 1969 titled African Religions and Philosophy. This book contributes significantly to African philosophy and has several ideas that are relevant for social work including, but not limited to ubuntu, decolonisation, indigenisation, spirituality, religion, ethnicity, kinship, birth, child development, initiation, marriage, procreation, death, ethics, justice and identity. Mbiti was an ordained priest, who led renowned world christian organisations. His philosophy is Africanism with a sub-philosophy, The Philosophy of African Religion.


This philosophy answers the question, What does it mean to be African? Mbiti (1969, p. 106) said “What happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group, community or country happens to the individual. People, country, environment and spirituality are intricately related. The individual can only say: ‘I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am’.”

The Philosophy of African Religion

Definition of religion: Religion can be discerned in terms of beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and religious officiants (Mbiti 1969, p. 1).

Mbiti is regarded as the father of modern African theology. His main idea is Africa has its own religion. He challenged the European view that Africa has no religion of its own, and the colonial and Christian view that African religious views are primitive, demonic and evil, and Africans are savages. He argued that African religion and religious views are just as legitimate and require respect as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. He translated the New Testament from Greek into his mother tongue, Kamba. During the translation, he noted more than 1000 mistakes and misrepresentations that were in the westernised Kamba Bible. Promoted inclusion of African religions and philosophy within curriculum despite scepticism and opposition mainly from missionaries.

Mbiti said “Even though attempts are made to give Christianity an African character, its Western form is in many ways foreign to African peoples. This foreignness is a drawback because it means that Christianity is kept on the surface and is not free to deepen its influence in all areas of African life and problems.”

“Because (African) religion permeate all departments of life, there is no formal distinction between the sacred and secular, between the religious and non-religious, between the spiritual and material areas of life. Wherever the African is, there is his religion: he carries it to the fields where he is sowing seeds or harvesting a new crop,; he takes it with him to the beer party or to attend a funeral ceremony; and if he is educated, he takes religion with him to the examination room at school or in the university; if he is a politician, he takes it to the house of parliament Although many African languages do not have a word for religion as such, it nevertheless accompanies the individual from long before his death to long after his physical death. Through modern change these religions cannot remain intact, but they are by no means extinct. In times of crisis, they often come to the surface, or people revert to them in secret (1969, p2-3)”.

Community is at the centre of African life

African religion is not primarily for the individual, but for the community of which he is part. Chapters of African religions are written everywhere in the life of the community, and in African society there are no irreligious people. To be human is to belong to the whole community, and participating in the beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, and festivals of that community. A person cannot detach himself from the religion of his people, for to do so is to be severed from his roots, his foundation, his context of security, his kinships and the entire group of those who make him aware of his own existence. To be without one of these corporate elements of life is to be out of the whole picture. Therefore, to be without religion amounts to a self-excommunication from the entire life of society, and Africa peoples do not know how to exist without religion (1969, p2)”.

African religion can not be replaced, they are irreplaceable

“One of the sources of severe strain for Africans exposed to modern change is the increasing process (through education, urbanization and industrialisation) by which individuals become detached from their environment. This leaves them in a vacuum devoid of a solid religious foundation. They are torn between the life of their forefathers which, whatever else might be said about it, has historical roots and firm traditions, and the life of our technological age which, as yet, for many Africans has no concrete form or depth (1969, p2)”.

Shortcomings of borrowed religions

“In these circumstances, Christianity and Islam do not seem to remove the sense of frustration and uprootedness. It is not enough to learn and embrace a faith which is active once a week, either on Sunday or Friday, while the rest of the week is virtually empty. It is not enough to embrace a faith which is confined to a church building or mosque, which is locked up six days and opened only once or twice a week. Unless Christianity and Islam fully occupy the whole person as much as, if not more than, African religions do, most converts to these faiths will continue to revert to their old beliefs and practices for perhaps six days a week, and certainly in times of emergency and crisis. The whole environment and the whole time must be occupied by religious meaning, so that at any moment and in any place, a person feels secure enough to act in a meaningful and religious consciousness. Since African religion occupy the whole person and the whole of his life, conversion to new religions like Christianity and Islam must embrace his language, thought patterns, fears, social relationships, attitudes and philosophical disposition, if that conversion is to make a lasting impact upon the individual and his community (1969, p3)”.

Importance of orature in religion

“In African religion there are no creeds to be recited; instead, the creeds are written in the heart of the individual, and each one is himself a living creed of his own religion. Where the individual is, there is his religion, for he is a religious being. It is this that makes Africans so religious: religion is in their whole system of being (1969, p3)”.

One of the difficulties in studying African religions and philosophy is that there are no sacred scriptures. Religion in African societies is written not on paper but in people’s hearts, minds, oral history, rituals and religious personages the priests, rainmakers, officiating elders and even kings. Everybody is a religious carrier. Therefore, we have to study not only religious beliefs concerning God and the spirits, but also the religious journey of the individual from before birth to after physical death; and to study also the persons responsible for formal rituals and ceremonies(1969, p3-4)”.

Some of the groups that Professor Mbiti got knowledge from.

Strength of Mbiti’s philosophy

  • Mbiti’s work was decolonial.
  • His work was based on field research in Africa with over 300 tribes
  • Promoted orature, for example, proverbs, rituals, prayers and memories. Even though African philosophies were not written at the time, they existed in oral forms and practices. He collected and published over 300 African prayers
  • His writing was based on his lectures at Makerere University in Uganda, making it relevant for Africa
  • His seminal work was published in Africa, in Johannesburg
  • He promoted indigenous languages.
  • Challenged prejudice against the African cultural and religious heritage

Criticism and weaknesses

  • More Christian focused and tried to Christianise African religious worldviews
  • Okot p’Bitek, Uganda said Mbiti used western intellectual understanding of religion to interpret Africa’s view of God
  • Married and settled in Switzerland, worked and died there, betraying his pan-Africanist ideology

Professor Lovemore Mbigi is a social worker and motivational speaker whose work in South Africa has focused on ubuntu inspired management. He was born in Zimbabwe.

His major philosophical point is that Africa has its own management philosophy, and therefore African managers, governments and companies will not succeed by using foreign philosophies in Africa. This argument is really useful for social work, because most subjects on social work management use management philosophies from western countries yet we have our own philosophies. In social work training the works of Mitzberg, Taylor, Weber, McGregor, Maslow or Fayol is often seen in course outlines, despite being outdated, this work does not align with African values. This is what Mbigi challenged, his African dream in management. There are several elements or principles to his ubuntu management philosophy or theory, importance ones for social work are:

  1. Social and political innovation are more challenging but yet more useful than technical innovation. Managers need to balance social, political and technical innovation to succeed. An example of social innovation is using ubuntu in management, this is achieved by using the social experience of Africans in management. This experience includes oral literature (metaphors, proverbs, maxims etc), rituals, ceremonies, spirit, music and dance.
  2. Masibambane, which means ubuntu inspired business culture marketing, leadership, accountability, training and production. African organisations must be inspired by Africa’s own cultural heritage. African organisations can only compete in the global market by using a uniquely African management concept, embedded in the philosophy of Ubuntu (Mbigi, 1997).
  3. Western and eastern methods should not replace or override ubuntu, they need to be put in the context of ubuntu if they are useful. Imitation should be avoided.
  4. Cultural diversity should be valued in organisations.  
  5. Collective leadership and decision making is important. Collective fingers theory (chara chimwe hachitswanyi inda) – Survival, Solidarity, Compassion, Respect and Dignity (Mbigi, 1997). All five fingers work together to achieve greater things.
  6. The role of managers is to facilitate the development of spirited and caring organisations. This is a source of motivation for workers.
  7. Shadow corpse theory – often, when organisations are not functioning, there is a ‘shadow’. This is an Africa metaphors, proverbs or maxim that says if a person dies and their shadow is seen, then there are unresolved issues. Mbigi says if an organisation is not doing well, there will be a shadow, and it will not go away until issues are resolved. This metaphor helps in diagnosing organisational problems.
  8. Nhorowondo – understand organisations, needs, motivations, processes and phenomena in their context. Family, community and culture are key considerations in Africa.

“Western genius in management lies in technical innovation. The Asian genius lies in process improvement. The African genius lies in people management”, (Mbigi, 2000).

“Although African cultures display awesome diversity, they also show remarkable similarities. Community is the cornerstone in African thought and life (Mbigi, 2005, p. 75). 

Mbigi’s model is an important tool in decolonising management and make organisational processes more humane. It is also important to increase productivity in the social services, management of workers, development of organisations and engagement with people who use our services. It is time to teach African management philosophies.

Major works

Mbigi, L. (1997), The African Dream in Management. Randburg: Knowledge Resources.

Mbigi, L. (2000), In Search of the African Business Renaissance. Randburg: Knowledge Resources.